Monday, 29 February 2016

Genesis: The Re-evaluation of John - Chapter 1: From Genesis To Revelation

Growing up in the 1970s I had a favourite band (everyone had to have one), and it was Genesis. I'd discovered them through their live album 'Seconds Out' and from there had delved into their back catalogue as much as paper round and pocket money would permit. Since then I've collected all their recorded output: most on vinyl and now all on CD, and recently I've had the urge to revisit their material, from cult Prog masters to global pop rock sensations.

Renowned in their early heyday for their epic length songs rooted in myth and an English eccentric narrative tradition, I was fascinated to come across a reissue of their debut album, marketed as 'Rock Roots: Genesis', in my local record shop. Written when the band were still students at Charterhouse, one of England's more historic independent schools, the album was released in March 1969 on the Decca label when the band were aged between 17 and 19.

The songs range from 2 minutes to just over 4½ minutes in length - a far
cry from the 10-20 minute epics that were only 3 or 4 years away, and seem to fit into the psychedelic pop genre rather than that of progressive rock (itself only in its infancy). Lyrically they are (naturally) quite 'sixth-form': poetic, drawing on literary and biblical imagery, with only the occasional love song alongside pangs of adolescent existential angst. Musically the dominant sounds are those of Tony Banks's keyboards and Anthony Phillips's 12-string guitar: the former would go on to dominate the Genesis sound for the ensuing 30+ years; the latter sadly missed after Phillips' departure following their sophomore release. Alongside them are Mike Rutherford on bass, guitars & backing vocals (with Banks the only other consistent member of the band), and John Silver on drums, one of three sticksmen used by the band before the arrival of Phil Collins. And overlying all this was the burgeoning vocal talents of Peter Gabriel, already exhibiting a breadth of range and texture that would define his style for the remainder of his long career.

The original sleeve
The hand of Jonathan King lies heavy on this collection, and it is definitely a creature of its time. But without King, himself an Old Carthusian, the band would not have got the break they needed to become the genre-defining stars they became. From these humble beginnings sprang recordings that are hailed as timeless classics, and as an insight into the early musical minds of the band this album repays careful listening.

Friday, 12 February 2016

Vly - I/(Time)

I've reviewed Vly's debut, I/(Time), for Progradar - you can find it here.

(It's really good, by the way! - the album, that is: modesty forbids...)

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Everything Beautiful in Time

For the second year in a row I've been caught out by a late album in the year, in that, had I discovered it before the end of the year it would certainly have made my Top 5, if not higher. Last year it was Tiger Moth Tales' stunning debut 'Cocoon', and this year it's another debut: the quite spectacular 'Everything Beautiful In Time' by the gloriously named 'I am the Manic Whale'.

The project is the work of Michael Whiteman (bass, keys, voice & song writing), ably supported by Ben Hartley (drums, percussion & backing vocals), David Addis (guitars & backing vocals), John Murphy (keys & backing vocals) and a couple of appearances from Ella Lloyd (flute). The band name, it seems, is an anagram of Michael A Whiteman.

Musically this is modern progressive rock of the highest calibre and quality, which draws on the vast store of all that has gone before it, with hints for me of neo-prog giants IQ and of American band Kansas, and the narrative lyricism of Big Big Train. The links with BBT go a little further too, as the album was mixed and mastered by 'the ninth Train' Rob Aubrey.

These are songs about perception: 'Open Your Eyes' about our inability sometimes to see the beauty in front of us; 'Pages' about the evolution of publishing from monks copying manuscripts by hand, through the development of printing, to the ubiquity and potential of the internet, so often sadly under-used ("I've a machine in my hand a thousand times faster than the bombe that broke enigma's code: I could use it to read every book ever written, but I use it to look at pictures of kittens."); 'Princess Strange' about the dangers of cyber bullying; 'Circles (Show Love)' about the abuse of media in general and tabloid journalism in particular.

The second half of the collection begins with 'Clock of the Long Now', a meditation on a 10,000 year clock (more details here); then continues with 'The Mess', a delightful song close to the heart of any parent of small children; and ends with the epic 'Derelict', a 21½ minutes paean to an abandoned swimming pool that evokes memories of bygone summers and lost childhood.

This is a quite stunning collection of work, replete with great musicianship and story-telling. You can find it on Bandcamp - give it a listen, this could be one of the finds of the year!

Friday, 5 February 2016

A Guilty Pleasure

Being a teenager at any time is hard. Along with the struggles with hormones and the associated problems of personal hygiene and sexual fumblings, there is a strong desire to belong, to be part of a group, a tribe, whatever. Certainly when I was going through the throes of puberty there were distinct groupings, usually based around ones musical preferences, and in this I was a Rocker. The uniform was distinctive: Denim (double for preference), jeans flared (naturally), patched, and ingrained with bike oil, cigarette ash & patchouli oil; jacket emblazoned with numerous band patches and/or hand-drawn band logos; t-shirt or cheese-cloth khurta; Indian silk scarves hanging from belt-loops; and (at least) shoulder-length and often unkempt hair.

This distinguished us from the other tribes: soul boys and skinheads mostly. As did our taste in music: loud, sometimes raucous, often complex ('it takes a while to get into, but once you do, it's amazing'), and seldom seen on Top of the Pops - our show was The Old Grey Whistle Test, or late nights on Radio 1 with John Peel, Friday evenings with Tommy Vance, Saturday afternoon with Alan 'Fluff' Freeman ('not arf'), and Sunday afternoon with Annie Nightingale. We even had 'our' night (Tuesday) at the local disco (Annabella's, next to the railway station in Harrogate), where we could go and 'freak out' to our favourite tunes and not have to listen to that disco rubbish.

It was a wonderful time!

But recent events have reminded me that, behind the bravura and tribal posturing, I quite liked some of 'their' music. And one of my particular favourites outside the denim-clad was 'Fantasy' by Earth Wind & Fire. As time progressed, and that particular band's influence came to bear on Phil Collins' solo work, and to some extent on that of Genesis, it became a little easier to admit to myself that their particular brand of soulful, psychedelic funk was OK to listen to.

So I'm a little sad that Maurice White is the latest in a growing line of musical influences in my life who have moved into the eternal sphere, but I rejoice at his legacy and the joy he gave to many (whether they felt able at the time to admit it or not!).